China ordered the United States on Friday to close its consulate in the western city of Chengdu, ratcheting up a diplomatic conflict when relations have sunk to its lowest level in decades.
Beijing accused the U.S. diplomats in Chengdu of engaging in activities ‘that harm China’s security interests.’
American staff must vacate the property, the only U.S. consulate in vast western China, by next Monday, according to the editor of Beijing’s state newspaper.
The move was a response to the Trump administration’s order this week for Beijing to close its consulate in Houston within 72 hours after Washington accused Chinese agents of trying to steal medical and other research in Texas.
Chinese diplomats allegedly started burning documents in the building’s courtyard after the U.S. State Department ordered its immediate closure.
The Chinese foreign ministry has appealed to Washington to reverse its ‘wrong decision.’
Chinese-U.S. relations have soured amid a mounting array of conflicts, including trade, the handling of the coronavirus pandemic, technology, spying accusations, Hong Kong, and allegations of abuses against Chinese ethnic Muslims.
‘The measure taken by China is a legitimate and necessary response to the unjustified act by the United States,’ said a statement from the Chinese Ministry of Foreign Affairs.
‘The current situation in Chinese-U.S. relations is not what China desires to see. The United States is responsible for all this,’ the ministry said.
‘We once again urge the United States to immediately retract its wrong decision and create necessary conditions for bringing the bilateral relationship back on track.’
China’s state broadcaster, CCTV, has been live-streaming the movements outside the consulate, captured by security cameras, on its social media account.
Hu Xijin, the editor-in-chief of state newspaper The Global Times, praised the ‘countermeasure’ from Beijing.
He said on Weibo, the Chinese equivalent to Twitter, that the decision showed that ‘we will not let the U.S. side make abusive definitions on the right or wrong of important events.’
He added that China had ordered the U.S. consulate to close within 72 hours, the same time frame Washington gave the Chinese diplomatic mission in Houston.
At a daily briefing on Friday, the Chinese foreign ministry said that the U.S. should bear all responsibilities for the political tensions.
Wang Wenbin, a spokesperson of the ministry, urged Washington to withdraw ‘the wrong decision’ immediately.
He said: ‘The relevant individuals from the U.S. consulate in Chengdu engage in activities that do not match their status, interfere in China’s domestic affairs and harm China’s security interests.
‘The Chinese side has made representations several times. The U.S. side should have known very well. Diplomacy is about reciprocity.’
The United States has an embassy in Beijing and consulates in five other mainland cities – Shanghai, Guangzhou, Chengdu, Shenyang and Wuhan.
It also has a consulate in Hong Kong, a Chinese territory.
On Tuesday, the Trump administration ordered the Houston consulate closed within 72 hours. It alleged Chinese agents tried to steal data from facilities including the Texas A&M medical system.
The ministry on Thursday rejected the allegations as ‘malicious slander’ and warned the Houston consulate’s closure was ‘breaking down the bridge of friendship’ between the two countries.
The Chinese consulate in Houston was reportedly a hot bed of spies – and President Trump’s decision to close it was made without warning or explanation.
The property was the first Chinese consulate opened in the U.S. in 1979 after diplomatic relationships between the two nations were established.
Hours before the administration made public its order on Wednesday, consulate employees were seen starting fires in a courtyard of the Houston building, prompting police officers and firefighters to respond to the scene.
Fire crews, however, were prevented from accessing the compound.
Diplomats stationed in Texas have been told that operations will cease on Friday afternoon – and Beijing has denounced the action as illegal, and vowed to retaliate.
The consulate is one of five in the U.S., not counting the embassy in Washington DC.
Sources on Wednesday told NBC that the consulate was known as being a center for Chinese spying.
Multiple U.S. officials told the network that the Houston consulate has long been used by the Chinese government to steal valuable medical research, and was involved in attempts to infiltrate the oil and natural gas industries.
They said the consulate is well-fortified, was hardened to prevent U.S. surveillance, and was a high-tech communications hub to coordinate and execute various spying operations.
Mark Warner, Democrat senator for Virginia and ranking member of the Senate Intelligence Committee, told NBC News’s Katy Tur that he would not discuss the specific intelligence behind Wednesday’s closure.
‘But I can tell you for the last two years, I and other members of the intel committee have been holding classified briefings with business leaders and academic leaders about the concerted efforts of the Chinese communist party to steal our intellectual property, to steal it from companies, to steal it from universities, to be on better guard,’ he said.
Warner suggested the action was driven by the FBI and its intelligence.
The State Department said China was directing ‘massive illegal spying and influence operations.’
David R. Stilwell, who oversees policy for East Asia and the Pacific at the State Department, told The New York Times that the Houston consulate had a history of engaging in ‘subversive behavior’.
He said the consulate was the epicenter of research theft in the United States.
For instance, Stilwell said, said the consul general, the top Chinese official there, and two other diplomats were recently caught using false identification to escort Chinese travelers to the gate area of a charter flight from George Bush Intercontinental Airport.
Stilwell said that some of China’s attempted scientific thefts in the United States had accelerated over the last six months, and could be related to efforts to develop a vaccine for the coronavirus – although he again presented no evidence.
Mike Pompeo, the Secretary of State, who has been a leader in aggressively pushing hard-line policies on China, said Wednesday at a news conference in Copenhagen that the Trump administration was ‘setting out clear expectations as to how the Chinese Communist Party is going to behave.’
He warned that the United States would ‘take actions’ to protect its interests.